If Your Novel Needs More Urgency and Momentum, Ask These Seven Questions!

By Katrin Schumann

How often when you're writing or revising a novel do you know what has to happen... but you just don't know how to get there? Charles Baxter gave a talk at this year's Muse and the Marketplace in which he offered up seven questions you can ask yourself to help jumpstart your plot.

"Situations inhabited by unhappy characters and studded with pretty sentences just gets so boring," he said. To avoid that, consider asking yourself the following:

  1. Do you have a Request Moment? A character cannot be passive if s/he has been given a request and asked to do it within a certain amount of time. This puts a dramatic moment out into the world. It creates an intriguing understanding of what certain people owe each other. Many of us live under the shadow of requests that have been made to us by our loved ones--this is inherently dramatic. Requests set a chain of cause and effect into motion. (Remember the opening of the Godfather in which Don Corleone is asked to avenge a young girl's rape?)
  2. Where is Captain Happen? Otherwise known as the narrative enabler, Captain Happen is the one person within the family, group, or community who will say or do what no one else dares to say or do. S/he blurts things out and acts impulsively, and this can't be taken back. S/he destablizes a situation and is the story's sparkplug. Throw good old Captain Happen into the scene if your characters get too well mannered.
  3. Where is Iago? Every good story needs an antagonist. Without some negative energy things can go stale. Othello isn't really a play until Iago enters. 
  4. Can you insert a one way gate? This is an action that a character can't go back on or be forgiven for. The action changes things so dramatically that it creates a point of no return. For example, a character who commits a murder is forevermore a murderer. A "one way gate" can even be a sentence, an accusation, a statement of recognition ("you are a thief") or a word that changes things. For instance, lying has consequences: it can be a one way gate. Imagine a character on an escalator, unable to get off. At some point, that person realizes s/he can't get off, even if s/he's heading toward something sinister at the top of the stairs.
  5. Is there a ticking clock? It may seem a narrative cliche, but Baxter pointed out that time running out is never a cliche--in fact, it's the oldest human truth. We do not have all the time in the world. When time is passing or slipping away, the feelings that characters have are compounded. Crowding the characters also has a similar effect; staging a story so there's not enough space can lead to plot taking care of itself.
  6. Where's the time bomb? What happens when you get to the top of the escalator? This has to be important enough that it changes the way the character sees the world. Note the difference between surprise and suspense: suspense is when the audience in the theatre knows there's a bomb under the seats but the actors don't. Suspense depends on telling the readers something the characters don't know.
  7. What is the secret? Unreported action has amazing narrative power. Secrecy is narration's anti-matter. For instance, when a person has a toxic narrative s/he refuses to tell anyone, that's narrative gold. And if characters have secrets, Baxter thinks writers should reveal them sooner rather than later--he believes in suspense over surprise.

One of my favorite questions to ask while writing is, "What is the least likely thing this character would do?" and see where that takes me. Do you have good questions you ask yourself while writing? 

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About the Author

Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.

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